Whatever further border controls or laws are put in place through Brexit, the 21st century sees a world on the move, be it legally or illegally. There are currently around 60 million displaced people around the world. With increased media coverage of the refugee crisis, there are more of these people’s stories being told than ever before.
In the last month three films have been released which present the plight of refugees and migrants and follow their incredibly journeys. These are #MyEscape, Exodus and My Journey. The films all have an element on roughness to them, a telling wobble of the camera on the sea and blurred shots as they are banged about, pushing past groups of people escaping. They also all have an emotional rawness that comes from the complete honesty and vulnerability of the films’ subjects. Together they make a powerful visual documentation of the refugee crisis in the modern world.
At Sheffield Doc Festival the film #MyEscape by Elke Sasse weaves the stories of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea. Next week the BBC’s programme Exodus comes out, a three-part documentary made by giving several refugees cameras to film their own journeys when it became impossible for camera crews to join them. But it is the third film, My Journey, that I want to focus on.
‘If the boat sinks, try to stay away from the others. Many of them don’t know how to swim, and they’ll grab onto you.’
My Journey is a series of six ten-minute films made for The New Yorker in collaboration with visual journalism unit Field of Vision. Filmmaker Matthew Cassel follows Syrian jewellery maker Aboud Shalhoub’s seventeen-hundred mile journey while his colleague Simon Safieh records Aboud’s wife Christine and their children at home in Damascus. Aboud is unable to find regular work in Istanbul where he arrived two and a half years after escaping, so he has to move to Europe to find work. He hasn’t seen his wife and children since he left and his children constantly ask why they can only see their father through Skype.
As Aboud, his brother Amer and Cassel set off from Turkey to Greece, they look like hitchhikers. They wrap their legs in cling film to be able to wade through water. It is Aboud’s fourth attempt to get to Europe. Through this six-part series we follow their uncertainty, their difficulty in making decisions of where to go and what mode of travel to use. There is no option that doesn’t involve risk of arrest, danger or sometimes death. The goal is always to find somewhere safe, apply for asylum and family reunification.
On their journey they are joined by a young mother Fadwa and her two girls. ‘In Syria we were threatened,’ one of the girls explains. ‘They wanted our car and one of us girls.’ There are so many layers of threat along everyone’s storyline, it feels impossible that such a young girl is talking about horrors so plainly. Their bravery is clear. But it also reminds you of Aboud’s wife and children back in Syria, still being threatened. I’ve always found it interesting that it is the men who go first, always the men we see being the first ones to flee to find safety for their families. It is easy to forget the necessary bravery of those left behind in the war zones, waiting. Fadwa explains the difficulty in choosing whether to stay or go. ‘I left Syria for them, but I’m worried I’m putting them in more danger on this trip’.
Their groups grows in Greece as it is safer to travel with more people, you have more protection from thieves and police. Though the group plans to splinter off as they each have different destinations- Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany- they travel together through the Balkans.
‘Are you going to cross Macedonia with flip flops?’
‘With flip flops and this bullet that’s still in my leg.’
It is a harrowing watch, like most documentaries on the crisis. But every one that we watch or make reaches out to a few more people and helps the rest of the world understand what people are going through to escape their home countries and get their families to safety.
‘Are we going to rest now?’
You can watch all of The Journey on The New Yorker.